Rooney's menace shoots message to world powers

Exhilarating performances by next summer's fierce rivals whet the appetite - but doubts persist over the quality of England's defence
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The Independent Football

Michael Owen came back to haunt Argentina. One suspects England failed to daunt them. Not ultimately, when this contest is stripped down to its component parts. Whatever the psychological advantages of this victory, achieved belatedly by the head of a man who had exemplified anonymity, this could easily have been a post-mortem on a defeat and, subsequently, the provocation of another debate on the future of England's head coach.

The fact that a beaming Sven Goran Eriksson could afford to talk of how soon England's next friendly in March would arrive - compared with the long wait for the next match that appeared to follow the defeat against Northern Ireland - was confirmation that he was, indeed, a relieved man.

Whether it was something in the air of this nation of neutrality, we departed having witnessed the beauty of two of next summer's principal pot-seekers. Not the beast. There was a vibrancy about this confrontation from both sides which many of us had not anticipated.

History, political and sporting, has defined many of the previous 13 fixtures and will necessarily always arm these two heavyweights. No matter to what extent the more sober implore a sense of proportion, the taste of victory over England's most avowed rivals is greeted by some as a footballing equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in the 1979 epic Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning".

In the event, the relative dearth of cautions and the spectacle of players picking each other up (without stamping on them) was rather more redolent of a scene advertising captain David Beckham's soon-to-be-launched eau de toilette rather than the hostile environments we have witnessed down the years; a sequence which began with Argentina captain Antonio Rattin being dismissed against England at Wembley in 1966 for perpetually haranguing the referee, after which Sir Alf Ramsey described the opposition as "animals", and continued with Maradona's "Hand of God" and Beckham's dismissal in 1998.

Potential flashpoints had been expected to involve Wayne Rooney, with Roberto Ayala and Walter Samuel appearing likely to examine his mercurial temperament, and Beckham, celebrating his 50th England game as captain, against, well, against the world. Yet, that England pair were among those who emerged with reputations intact. The menace Rooney brought to bear upon the Argentina back line, was particularly significant in the first half, during which England's midfield combined, at times scintillatingly so, with Steven Gerrard on the left of the "diamond" particularly influential. Goalkeeper Paul Robinson also confirmed himself fingers, feet and brain above the other contenders.

Others cannot be regarded so benignly after a display in which England were technically inferior to their opponents. What should particularly trouble the England coach was the vulnerability of England's rearguard, with neither full-back, Luke Young or Wayne Bridge, appearing comfortable. From England's perspective, thankfully they are stand-ins to Gary Neville and Ashley Cole.

This contest was as likely to provide as much an insight into Eriksson's tactical vision as individual performances. The Swede had dropped into recent discussions the fact that the last time England had played this opposition in Sapporo, in Japan, won by Beckham's penalty, Uefa's coaching analysts had declared that tactically it had been the best game in that World Cup.

It was a somewhat pointed response to his critics who have constantly denigrated his adroitness in that department. The principal question here was whether England's diamond-cutters could find a way through the unyielding Argentinian rearguard, while their own Ledley King-reinforced defence could stand firm.

The answer in the first half was yes, eventually, and no. That early period was characterised by some deft touches from Juan Roman Riquelme, who at times mesmerised England.

The Villarreal midfielder is not the paciest and certainly not the most industrious back-tracker but demonstrated again here that he is an exquisite passer of the ball and was inextricably involved in much of Argentina's initial examination of Eriksson's men. Some suggest he may be the new Maradona but it is more likely that the No 10 of the future will be Barcelona's teenage prodigy, Lionel Messi - suspended for yesterday's game - whom the maestro has himself spoke of as likely to "inherit my place in Argentinian football". Even without that phenomenon, this was a daunting enough experience for King who at times looked like what he is, a talented young defender, but no Claude Makelele, although he stuck manfully to his task.

Argentina's central defender Ayala, one of the few survivors from 1998 and a man who witnessed Owen's goal in St Etienne from uncomfortably close quarters, had opined beforehand that Owen and Rooney are the world's finest striking combination. It was to prove a prophetic statement indeed when Rooney equalised Hernan Crespo's opener with a splendid strike, though Ayala could scarcely have imagined that a merited triumph would be denied by a late equaliser from Owen.

Worse a winner from that perennial irritant. It allowed England to wallow in euphoric belief of what just may be in seven months' time. Somehow, though, you imagine back in tournament circumstances, Argentina will revert to traditional rules of combat. More Argy-bargy than touchy-feely.